In the Daily Telegraph today, Boris sets everyone straight about Uber. This is not about getting rid of them, but getting them to play fair.
OK, OK, I get it. I hear you, my friends; in fact, I am with you. I have been deluged in the last few days by correspondence from people after my own heart – rampant, frothing, free-market Conservatives. We hate cartels, we hate Spanish practices, and we hate anything that amounts to a conspiracy against the consumer. So I can see why there has been such indignation about a Transport for London (TfL) consultation on the humdrum subject of licences for minicabs. As soon as the paper was published last week, my inbox silted up with protests from friends.Don’t bash Uber, they wail, and the phones in City Hall have been ringing off the hook with scandalised calls. I understand completely the points they make: that Uber and other such apps are helping to create jobs for thousands. The service is cheap, it is convenient, it is ever more popular. As I write, 128,620 people have signed a petition calling for TfL to drop its proposals – and I am inclined to believe those numbers are genuine: that there is a massive and growing constituency of people who use the app, and who swear by it.
I am afraid I have noted sometimes among these people a symmetrical dismissiveness – even heartlessness – about the fate of the black cab trade. I have heard the cabbies compared, in their obstructionism, to the old stock jobbers whose function was effectively removed by the Big Bang financial reforms of 1986; and though I disagree profoundly with that comparison, I can see why people say it.
The black taxi trade has not always been its own most effective advocate, and in recent months cabbies have been badly let down by the behaviour of a few. You cannot expect to command public sympathy if you blockade the traffic. You won’t win people over by stampeding City Hall and roughing up staff – in protest, absurdly, at the use of the word “Luddite”.
What is needed is a sense of balance – and a proper understanding of the problem. The reason TfL is consulting on new regulations for minicabs is very simple: we need to uphold the law. At present that law is being systematically broken – or at least circumvented – by the use of the Uber app. Ever since minicabs were first regulated in the 1960s, this country has drawn a clear distinction between private hire vehicles and hackney carriages. The hackney carriage trade has been regulated since Oliver Cromwell, and today these black cabs must conform to onerous specifications, including a tight turning circle and wheelchair access. Their drivers must have passed “the Knowledge” – an exacting test about London’s geography.
In return, the law says that only black cabs may stand or ply for hire in the streets, and only black cabs can be hailed in the streets. Parliament has been very precise. A minicab may not rank up, a minicab may not ply for hire – cruise in search of passengers – and a minicab may not be hailed in the street. Indeed, a minicab must be booked through a third party, a licensee or booking agency.
You only have to consider the habits of many Uber minicabs – not all, but many – to see that this law is systematically broken; and that is because technology makes it so easy for it to be broken.
You no longer need to see a vehicle to hail it. Your phone will see it for you. It will see round corners; it will see in the dark. You no longer need to hail a taxi by sticking your arm out or shouting; you just press a button and within minutes – seconds – the car will be at your side. The car can be parked up at a petrol station, or down a side street, or just dawdling in traffic, and – ping – it will be there. In other words the app is allowing private hire vehicles to behave like black taxis: to be hailed, to ply for hire in the streets, to do exactly what the law says they are not supposed to do. You have the instant (or virtually instant) accessibility of the black cab, with none of the extra costs entailed by the vehicle regulations or the Knowledge, and the growth of the business is huge.
Under the 1977 provisions, a local authority has no power to restrict the number of minicabs – and so they have been swarming on to the streets, at a rate of anything between 600 and 1,200 per week. There were about 48,000 when I became Mayor of London in 2008. There are now about 82,000, and they cause serious congestion around Heathrow and other hubs.
What is the answer? Well, we could simply deregulate on both sides. We could allow minicabs to be legally hailed in the street, to reflect what is already happening, and we could level the playing field by removing the costly burdens on black cabs. That would mean the end of any real distinction between black cabs and private hire vehicles, and the effective end of the black cab trade. I hear no one in government advocating this, not least since many people don’t have apps, and greatly value the black cabs.
A better solution is surely to try to find a balance that allows a coexistence: on the one side a black cab trade that represents a premium service, offered by people who really know the city, and which makes much better use of its own apps as well as contactless payment; and on the other side minicab apps that have become a boon to so many. I agree completely with the free-marketeers: it is nuts to try to ban technology.
But until Parliament has the guts to change the law we must uphold the existing and long-standing legal distinctions between black cabs and minicabs. Some of TfL’s proposals are clearly stronger than others; and in general it must be much better to crack down on illegal behaviour than to try to fetter new technology. But the aim is clear. We want competition, we want choice – but if Margaret Thatcher believed in one thing it is that freedom is only possible under the rule of law.